Publisher: Talmudic Books
At the same time the book can also serve as an appetizer, a first introduction to the synagogue and its most significant prayers, for those from outside shul life – people who have not been inside an Orthodox synagogue since their bar mitzvah.
It is livened by autobiographical reminiscences that include how shul felt for the author, as the son of the rabbi of what was then Zichron Ephraim and later the Park East Synagogue. The combination of growing up as the rabbi’s son of one of the most prestigious Orthodox congregations in New York City, and the intellectual honing provided by being part of academe for many years, prepared Zahavy well for writing this unique presentation of Jewish prayer as practiced in the synagogue.
Indeed, his background and credentials make him eminently qualified for this undertaking. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees, as well as rabbinic ordination, from Yeshiva University, where he spent four years studying with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. He then earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Brown University, and went on to pursue an academic career at the University of Minnesota, where he was a professor of Jewish Studies and was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award.
In God’s Favorite Prayers, Zahavy describes the prayer service as it is encountered in real-life synagogues, defining it as a series of discrete and somewhat diverse elements that have their own internal coherence. At the same time, it somehow synchronizes and creates a rewarding whole.
The major thrust of the book is what, lacking any better term, I call the psycho-emotional dimension – not the literal meaning of the prayers but rather the impact that their recitation should or could have on regular synagogue goers. It is particularly successful in evoking a renewed spiritual dimension, respecting texts whose essence sometimes tends to fade through their constant use.
The prayers are categorized typologically, a separate chapter being devoted to each of the following: The Performer’s Prayers; The Mystic’s Prayers; The Scribe’s Prayers; The Priest’s Prayers; The Meditator’s Prayers; and The Celebrity’s Prayers. The chapter headings are not intended to indicate either their authorship or their history, both of which Zahavy considers to be largely unknown and, in any event, irrelevant for his purpose.
Following these chapters is one on the Kiddush, both as a special blessing recited several times during the Sabbath or holiday and as the social event held in many synagogues immediately following the Sabbath morning service.
The book closes with a short epilogue portraying the emotional experience accompanying the blowing of the shofar, particularly, but not only, at the close of the Yom Kippur service.
While the book will ring a bell for regular synagogue attendees in all countries, it will have particular resonance for those used to the American experience. An especially noteworthy example: particularly American is the endeavor to be respectful of women vis-à-vis the synagogue experience.
Zahavy has succeeded in relating to women and addressing them “at eye level” as real and active participants in the prayer experience, without “moving the curtain aside” or giving them an active part in the pageantry of the prayer service that in Orthodox Judaism is considered to be an exclusive male domain. He somehow manages to provide his women readers with a feeling of inclusiveness,without their intruding into the traditional male domain of the synagogue service.
He achieves this primarily by choosing women as the archetypes in several of the chapters. He not only uses the biblical Hannah to introduce his discussion of The Mystic’s Prayers. He doesn’t hesitate to introduce a contemporary woman in the ensuing narrative to illustrate his point. So too Zahavy places a lady at the center of his description in his chapter on meditation.
An important insight that in and of itself makes the book worthwhile is its illustration of one of the major axioms of the nature of Jewish prayer – that it is the one who prays who, in the last analysis, determines the content of the prayer that is recited. While the words of the prayers provide the common denominator that make it possible for communal prayer to take place, it is the individual prayer of each of us (and even our own prayer at different times) that provides the common and virtually timeless text with contemporary and personal meaning.
While I too have taught prayer in university classes, and hopefully was interesting and informative, this book is entirely different. While I concentrated on content and sources, Zahavy’s aim here is to re-evoke dimensions of meaning in texts whose familiarity has caused their sharp meaning to fade. For all these and other reasons, the book is an enjoyable read and well worth the time doing so.
Dr. Naomi G. Cohen taught for many years at Tel Aviv University and Haifa University, and is a senior research fellow at Haifa University. She has published extensively on Jewish liturgy and on Philo Judaeus, including Philo’s Scriptures: Citations from the Prophets and Writings. She is married to Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Haifa.